Wednesday November 27, 2002
Picture if you will a bearded gentleman on a recruiting poster, finger pointing imploringly. "I need you," it would say. No, it's not the ubiquitous Lord Kitchener appeal, but "the emir", Osama bin Laden, and he needs you to invade Iraq. If there is one man who wants an Anglo-American invasion and occupation of an Arab country more than the chief of the US defence board, Richard Perle, it's surely the elusive and pious pimpernel of the Tora Bora.
Perle told a meeting in parliament last week that the US will launch the war whether the arms inspectors find anything or not - and Bin Laden hopes he's right. And that's the flaw at the heart of our government's fudge motion in parliament this week, passed with 87 against and over 100 MPs voting with their feet in abstention: the status quo means whatever you want it to mean.
For Jack Straw, making his most conciliatory speech yet, the arms inspectors route is a "pathway to peace", and even sanctions can be lifted if the process is completed successfully. But for the opposition, Michael Ancram, backing the same text, supported Straw like a rope supporting a hanging man. For him the UN security council resolution is a runway to war. A microcosm, in other words, of the council itself, where France, Russia, China and Syria all protest that they voted for a different resolution than the one its authors wrote.
Straw went so far as to say Britain had a "preference" for a new security council resolution before war could be declared - indeed that we would like to move it. And that a "nil return" on the weapons inventory to be submitted by Iraq on December 8 would not in itself be a "material breach". He even maintained an eloquent silence on whether the shooting down of an Anglo-American patrol over the no-fly zones would be such a breach.
But after some "inspiration" from the box of mandarins who flank the Commons chamber on such occasions, once word of a different spin arrived from the prime minister's press conference, even he had to make it clear that there would be no such resolution if there was a chance that any of the permanent five might veto it. In other words, we will put it to the vote if the vote is safely rigged in advance. At least he had the grace to look embarrassed.
So we are back where we have always been. Relying on the intentions of the most rightwing and warlike Republican administration Washington has ever seen.
Gerald Kaufman identified the "three witches" of the Bush forest: Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rice. Like Macbeth's witches, "toil and trouble" is what they're boiling for, he said. While nursing their wrath about the Powell-Blair axis of multilateralism they, along with Perle, seem remarkably confident that the president's heart and mind is with them. And we know now what Mr Blair didn't tell the TUC and Labour conferences: that if the witches' coven prevails we'll be on the back of the broomstick bound for Baghdad.
The "coalition of the willing" could have a security council endorsement if the threats and bribes are sufficient. More plausibly, Britain and a ragbag of post-Soviet supplicants for Nato and EU membership will be all there is. Then, as Amr Moussa, the Arab League secretary-general, put it, we "will have opened the gates of hell".
Sixty days and nights of bombing Iraq, with a thousand raids each day, according to the leaked Pentagon plan, followed by an invasion and what will surely be a prolonged occupation. The puppet government brought from Knightsbridge will get to work privatising the oil industry, ditching Iraq's current trading partners for new ones - we know who'll make off with the top prizes - and joining a Jordanian-style "normalisation", finally bowing Baghdad's knee to Israel.
And in the age of Arab-Sat, every burning building, every scorched corpse, every broken family dragged out of the Iraqi ruins will be viewed in Technicolor from the Atlantic to the Gulf. A taste of what the hell will be like is evident, or would be but for the total curfew, in Ma'an in Jordan, where the king's airforce has been bombing his own people to suppress a mini Islamist revolt. In Saudi Arabia, huge sweeps of oppositionists are a harbinger of turmoil to come. Around the world, anger is exploding, literally, and if the prime minster is right, our own capital may be next. For Bin Laden and his ilk, Britain is now in the front ranks of the hated.
Many have praised Tony Blair for nudging Bush into the thicket of the UN. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If the pathway leads to peace, as was no doubt his good intention, he will be a hero. If it turns out that he has merely paved the way to hell, Burnham Wood will have come to Dunsinane - and the Blair project will be at an end.
? George Galloway is Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin and a columnist for the Scottish Mail on Sunday